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Sunday, June 16, 2024
The Observer

On imposter syndrome: You don't have to be exceptional

This year, I’ve come to the radical realization that I am not exceptional or extraordinary, and I don’t need to be in order to live a good life. 

The words themselves — exceptional and extraordinary — are pretty interesting. For instance, “extraordinary” derivesfrom the Latin ”extra ordinem” which means “out of the common order” and “beyond the regular kind.” The etymology of extraordinary calls for a certain “going beyond” — a stretching of the standard and typical. The mere existence of something beyond and greater than the ordinary suggests that ordinary is not desirable. If there’s something more to strive for, then why settle for ordinary, for mediocre? 

A fear of mediocrity has followed me around throughout my entire life. I, and I’m sure many who read this column, have always felt an intense amount of pressure to be extraordinary — to get the 4.0, to win the sports competition, to be well-liked, to get into a “top” college, to get the “best” internship, to have the most amount of friends, to have a memorable college experience worthy of the “best four years of my life” and so on. The thought of not being — or at least striving — for exceptionalism, for perfection and for something more than “average” is a fear that is unhealthy and, unfortunately, rampant at a place like Notre Dame. 

I single out Notre Dame because this is the place where I’ve struggled the most with my own mediocrity. On a campus full of valedictorians, varsity athletes and talented artists, where it seems (emphasis on seems) like everyone is happy and outgoing, beautiful and popular, social and brilliant, successful and charming, it sometimes feels like everyone here is exceptional. To be anything but exceptional is a recipe for disaster and misfortune. Being a Notre Dame student as someone who’s shy and unsure, anxious and lost and struggling in the perpetual cycle of imposter syndrome and questioning of self-worth has led me to pursue much reflection and meditation on this dichotomy of exceptionalism and mediocrity. 

My fear of mediocrity — which was already quite high to begin with — escalated the second I got to South Bend for the first time in the summer of 2020. As a Gateway student, I (wrongly) felt behind my peers who had gotten into Notre Dame the traditional way, and I set lofty goals with the purpose of proving myself. I wanted to prove that I was good enough, smart enough and capable of success. At the time, I wasn’t really sure who I was proving myself to, but looking back, I know it was just myself who I was trying to impress. I really wish I could go back in time and tell freshman year Meg — who had no idea about the experiences, challenges and lessons ahead — that, in many ways, she is, in fact, average but that there’s nothing wrong with that. 

So, today, I posit that being mediocre is just fine. As I begin my senior year of college, I enter with the knowledge that I likely will not go on to change the world, to leave a legacy behind, to live an extravagant and Instagram-worthy life. I’m also not going to invent something that will change people’s lives, be on the news or travel the world.

I know and embrace now that I am not exceptionally smart or talented or cool, and I probably never will be. And, I’m okay with that. I’m learning that I no longer need to be, or even strive to be, exceptional or extraordinary in order to feel worthy of my place on Earth. I can live an ordinary life — one that involves just a few close friends, healthy relationships with those I love, a 9-5 job that’s enough to provide for my family and myself and maybe a cat — and still be happy. I can be an average person — who is just trying my best to live a healthy and happy life with people I love — and still be someone of value. As I get a little older, I’m learning that an ordinary life can be a good life and that ordinary people are just as valuable and capable of good as the “extraordinary.” 

I didn’t want to end this column in a cheesy way, but life in itself is an extraordinary thing. The probability of each of our existences is pretty infinitesimal. I really believe that life is already extraordinary, even before we humans have the ability to do anything to merit that quality. So, if my chances of even having been born were really 1 in 102,685,000, then I’ve decided that I’m no longer going to spend my days here worrying about not being extraordinary or exceptional. As long as I work hard, put my best foot forward and try to be good to the people and communities around me, I’ll be just fine. And so will you. 

Meg is a senior majoring in Political Science and minoring in Data Science and Business Economics. Besides writing, she enjoys spending time with the people she loves, riding on public transportation and listening to good music.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.